Friday, 5 July 2013

Friday 5 July 1963

Anyone suffering from space withdrawal symptoms since Fireball XL5 went off the air should be space chuffed by the new addition to the TV Minus 50 schedule that makes its debut appearance today.  Space Patrol, created by Roberta Leigh and Arthur Provis, collaborators with Gerry Anderson on early shows The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy, had actually been running on ABC in the Midlands since April, but I've decided to go with the London region airdates as those were the ones I was using for Fireball XL5.  Well, now that fascinating piece of information's out of the way, I shall crack on with introducing you to the peculiar world of Space Patrol.

Now THAT's a font
The similarities between Fireball XL5 and Space Patrol are abundantly obvious.  For one thing they both focus on an organisation calling itself a Space Patrol, and in particular on the adventures of a daring space pilot and  his crew.  Space Patrol's Captain Larry Dart is considerably more hirsute than Steve Zodiac, though.

Captain Dart's facial hair seems symbolic of the differences between the two shows: far more than Fireball XL5Space Patrol is science fiction as it might appeal to beardy intellectual types.  Rather than just telling rip-roaring space adventure stories, the makers of Space Patrol seem to have given some serious (if eccentric) consideration to what life might be like in the future, and as such it feels more ambitious than XL5 - though its budget is clearly considerably smaller (the model scenes aren't quite as good as Anderson's, and the noticeably smaller cast of puppets have an eerily blank look to them).  Of course, Space Patrol's still a children's puppet show, and in many ways (which I'll detail here) it's just as wonderfully silly as the Anderson series.  But at its core there's an attempt at being far more high-minded.  The choice of music sums this up nicely: in place of a rousing Barry Gray theme we're given the strange electronic noises of F C Judd.  No end credits singalong here (unless you like to sit and whir to yourself).

The Wandering Asteroid's a straightforward tale of an impending natural disaster that only Space Patrol can avert.  The asteroid of the title's heading straight for Wotan, capital city of Mars.  For the childish among us there are guffaws aplenty as Martian Professor Zephyr and his assistant spy the asteroid through their telescope: "Is it a large one?" "The biggest I've ever seen!"

Space Patrol are called on to blast the thing out of the sky.  The organisation's chief, Colonel Raeburn, proves to be just as much of a grump as his Fireball XL5 counterpart Commander Zero: "Why in space have I been sent this information about an asteroid? I'm head of the United Galactic Organisation, not a stargazer!" I get the impression he'd be a very tedious person to have a conversation with.

The colonel's assistant, Marla, might be a bit more interesting.  She's an ethereal Venusian with a bizarre high-pitched voice and the ability to read minds.  Space Patrol's Venusians, with their elfin appearance, psychic powers and preference for logic over emotion, seem a plausible influence on Star Trek's Vulcans: Space Patrol had a brief run on US telly and earned cult status over there as a result.

When Marla computes the trajectory of the asteroid there's an amazing montage of machinery that looks as antiquated in 2013 as it did ultramodern in 1963.

Chief scientist Professor Aloysius O'Rourke O'Brien Haggerty, a flamboyant begorrah-ing Irishman assisted by his daughter Cassiopeia, is called on to assist - interrupting his vital work on genetically engineering square eggs.

Raeburn's banking on Haggerty to help with the asteroid: "I was hoping you'd come up with some crazy Irish idea!".   "I'm a scientist, not a demolition man," clucks Haggerty, which also sounds a bit familiar.  Fortunately he has a bomb hanging around that can be used to blow up the asteroid, but it'll take skilful astronauts to plant it.  Time to call on Captain Dart.

Dart's meant to be on holiday, so he's not best pleased to be sent on a life-or-death mission at short notice, though hero that he is he accepts the assignment.  Accompanying him is his trusty co-pilot Slim, a male (though you wouldn't know it to look at him) Venusian, and formidable Martian Husky, who's, er, obsessed with sausages.

This lot travel to Mars in their distinctive-looking ship, the Galasphere 347, with the bomb in tow.

Parking the ship above the asteroid, the crew venture down on their flying scooters.  Yes, they're a bit like the ones in Fireball XL5 but by contrast there are no oxygen pills here, the crew having to rely on proper breathing apparatus.

With the bomb slightly off centre, Slim has to fly off into space using an ion-gun in order to move it to the right place.

Eventually the asteroid gets blown up and the people of Mars are safe. Hurrah! But it's not all good news: it turns out Professor Haggerty's square eggs don't have any yolks.  Shame.

One of my favourite things about Space Patrol is the final shot of its end credits, proof positive that it's improving stuff for inquiring young minds:

Excitingly, you can watch The Wandering Asteroid here:

Next tonight we venture back 900-odd years for more historically questionable adventures of the Plantagenet family.

After all his adventures in foreign lands Richard's finally back home.  But before he gets much of a chance to settle back into his throne his inner sanctum's invaded by a deeply disgruntled pair of yokels.  These are Jasper of Lyntor (Bartlet Mullins) and his daughter Helen (Jocelyn Britton).  They're a formidable pair despite their short stature, Helen quite happy to give the palace guard what for.

The reason for Jasper and Helen's quarrel with the king is the vastly inflated amount of taxes they've been expected to pay in the last year.  Neither Richard nor his chancellor are aware of any reason for the tax hike - but as Lyntor's in Cornwall, one of the counties which was ruled by dastardly Prince John in Richard's absence, the king begins to get an inkling of where the money might be going.

In what could be an intriguing new direction for the show, Richard decides to head off to Lyntor himself, with loyal Sir Gilbert in tow, to investigate what's going on.  If only today's royal family showed such get up and go - who could resist the idea of the Queen roaming the land like a wellie-clad Miss Marple, poking her nose into people's financial affairs?

On arrival in Lyntor incognito, the first person Richard wants to talk to is innkeeper Michael Henry.  He and Jasper were once best friends, but since Michael was appointed district tax collector their relationship's turned hostile.  Michael's played by Roy Kinnear, instantly familiar to viewers in 1963 as a member of the That Was the Week That Was team.  Unfortunately Kinnear doesn't get much of a chance to show off his innate comic brilliance here, or do anything much other than be rustic behind a cumbersome false beard.

The only slightly funny thing he gets to do is exchange a ridiculous "Yikes!" look with his son Tom (Love Thy Neighbour's Jack Smethurst) on learning the king's true identity.

Tom and Helen are supposedly betrothed, but their relationship's soured since their fathers began their feud.  Sir Gilbert engages the lovelorn Tom in some manly chat: "I've an eye for the ladies myself - as long as they can cook".  Well I could have guessed it wasn't their bodies he was interested in.

Later Gilbert expands on his philosophy to the king: "I've often thought that a good feast and a tankard of ale was worth more than all the wenches in Christendom".  Hmm.

Anyway, back to the plot (such as it is).  Richard deduces that Baron Fitzjames, the Sheriff of Cornwall (regular Danzigers character player John Scott), has been extorting extra money from the folk of Lyntor at the bidding of his master Prince John.  When John learns that Richard's on his trail there's some wonderfully overripe "You fooool!" acting from Trader Faulkner as the Prince lambasts his unfortunate henchman.

Eventually the Lyntorians all join with Richard to fight off the Prince's forces, the rather wonderful Helen right in the vanguard.  The final confrontation between the Brothers Plantagenet's ever so thrilling.

The episode ends with Baron Fitzjames being cast into jail while, utterly unfairly, Richard lets John off purely because he's his brother.  Clearly having a ball with the thoroughly panto role of the black-hearted Prince, Trader Faulkner departs in classic baddie style with the line: "Don't worry Richard, you will never catch me!" (bwah-ha-ha not included).

Tune in for more adventures of Richard the Lionheart: Tax Detective in a couple of weeks.

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